HBR Guide to Better Business Writing

Marton Trencseni - Fri 08 July 2022 - book

This is one of my favorite practical advice books. I read it first in 2015, and multiple times since then. These are my notes of the book, which I recommend you should buy right now.

Introduction

If your writing is sloppy and artless people will think you are the same. They won’t care about your message, they won’t do business with you. It’s not true that only ideas matter. Good writing gets ideas noticed. Those who write poorly create barriers between themselves and their readers. Those who write well connect with their readers, open their minds, and achieve goals. Don’t waste your reader’s time. If you’re in business and you’re writing, you’re a professional writer.

Qualities of good writing:

  • an intense focus on your reasons for writing, and on your reader’s needs
  • preference for the simplest words possible
  • feel for natural idioms
  • appreciation for the right words in the right places
  • an ear for tone

HBR Guide to Better Business Writing

Know why you’re writing

Say clearly what your issue is and what you are trying to accomplish. With every sentence, ask yourself whether you’re advancing that cause. Consider your audience and purpose before starting to write, and let these guide what you say and how you say it. Plainly state the issue you’re addressing and what you hope to achieve. Keep your goal in mind: don’t undermine your efforts with hostile or inappropriate tone.

Understand your readers

Respect your readers’ time contraints. They are very busy. They have little sense of duty to read what you put in front of them. If they don’t get your point quickly, they’ll leave. At the slightest need to struggle to understand you, they’ll stop trying—and think less of you.

Prove quickly that you have something valuable to say—valuable to your readers. Waste no time in saying it. Write with such clarity and efficiency that reading your material is easy, even enjoyable. Use tone that makes you likable.

Tailor you message to you audience. A good trick is to connect with particular readers to connect with large audiences. Warren Buffet recommends:

When writing Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report, I pretend that I’m talking to my sisters. I have no trouble picturing them: though highly intelligent, they are not experts in accounting or finance. They will understand plain English, but jargon may puzzle them. My goal is simply to give them the information I would wish them to supply me if our positions were reversed. To succeed, I don’t need to be Skakespeare; I must, though, have a sincere desire to inform.

Recap:

  • Understand that your readers have no time to waste: get to the point quickly and clearly to ensure that your message gets read.
  • Use a tone appropriate for your audience.
  • Emphasize the items most important to your readers. If they can easily see how your message is relevant to them, they will be more likely to read it and respond.
  • Choose an intelligent, nonspecialist member of your audience to write for and focus on writing for that person. Your message will be more accessible and persuasive to all your readers as a result.

Divide the writing procss into four separate tasks (MACJ)

  1. The Madman gathers material and generates ideas.
  2. The Architect organizes information by drawing up an outline, however simple.
  3. The Carpenter puts your thoughts into words, laying out sentences and paragraphs by following the Architect’s plan.
  4. The Judge is your quality-control character, polishing the expression throughout—everything from tightening the language to correcting grammar and punctuation.

Three main points (Architect)

When writing a short piece like an email, write down your three main points first in full sentences. People can’t hold more than 3 things in their heads. Spell out your logic as clearly as you can. Force yourself to think through your reasons.

Recap:

  • Find your focus by first generating a list of topics to cover.
  • Develop these raw ideas into full sentences and categorize your main points in sets of threes.
  • Arrange these sets in a logical order, keeping your reader’s needs in mind.

Write in full—rapidly (Carpenter)

Write the first draft as quickly as you can. Once you’ve written your three main points so that you know where you’re going, you’re in Carpenter mode. Write as quickly as possible. Your sentences will be shorter than they otherwise should be, your idioms will be more natural. If there’s a painful part of writing, it’s doing the first draft. When you shorten the duration, it’s not as painful.

Speed writing: to prevent premature fussing, write against the clock. Allow yourself 5 or 10 minutes to draft each section. Don’t edit. This is not yet the time to let the Judge in. If you find yourself stumped, move on to a different section you’re more comfortable with and come back to the problem once you’ve found your flow.

Improve what you’ve written (Judge)

Once you have written a complete draft, you’ll revise first and then edit. Revising is a reconsideration of what you’re saying as a whole, and where you’re saying it. It’s rethinking the floor plan. Editing is more a matter of fine-tuning sentences and paragraphs. You need to allow time for both. On the one hand, don’t let some neurotic obsession with perfectionism delay important projects. On the other hand, don’t rashly send things out without proper vetting and improvement.

Revising:

  • Have I been utterly thruthful?
  • Have I said all that I need to say?
  • Have I been appropriately diplomatic and fair?
  • Do I have three parts—an opener, a middle, and a closer?
  • In my opener, have I made my points quickly and clearly?
  • In the middle, have I proved my points with specifics?
  • Is my closer consistent with the rest, expressed freshly?

Editing:

  • Where can I save some words?
  • Is there a better way of phrasing this idea?
  • Is my meaning unmistakable?
  • Can I make it more interesting?
  • Is the expression relaxed but refined?
  • Does one sentence glide into the next, without discontinuities?

Be relentlessly clear

Clarity can be a double-edged sword. When you’re forthright enough to take a position or recommend a course of action, you’re sticking your neck out. People who don’t want to commit make their writing muddy. Perhaps they’re trying to leave room for their views to evolve as events unfold. Or perhaps they’re hoping they can later claim credit for good results and deny responsibility for bad ones. The fact is though, that many readers will perceive them not as savvy wait-and-see participants but as spineless herd-followers who are slow to see opportunities within their reach. So clean up the mud.

Adopt the reader’s perspective: always judge clarity from the reader’s standpoint—not your own. Your goal should be to write so unmistakably that your readers can’t possibly misunderstand or misinterpret.

Keep your language simple: simplicity breeds clarity.

Show, don’t tell: be specific enough that you lead your readers to draw their own conclusions (that match yours), as opposed to simply expressing your opinions without support and hoping people will buy them. Not: “he was a bad boss”. Instad: “he got a promotion based on his assistant’s detailed reports, but then—despite the company’s record profits—denied that assistant even routine cost-of-living raises”. A short, vague sentense like “he was a bad boss” may register in the readers’ mind—but only as a personal impression that’s potentially biased. It’s credible only if its source (you) is credible. Concrete business writing is persuasive because it’s evidence-based, clear and memorable. When you supply meaningful, objective details you’re sharing information, not just your opinion.

Recap:

  • Put yourself in the reader’s shoes to assess your clarity. Better yet, see whether a colleague can accurately summarize the main points of your draft from a quick read-through.
  • Phrase your ideas as plainly and briefly as possible, aiming for an average sentence length of 20 or fewer words.
  • Pave your readers’ way with concrete details. Don’t try to push them there with abstract assertions.
  • Cultivate your letter writing to improve your writing skills more generally.

Learn to summarize—accurately

A good summary is focused and specific—and it’s at the beginning of your document so readers don’t have to dig. It gets to the point. It lays the foundation for what’s to follow. There’s no holding back on the crucial information.

People often assume that shorter is better when it comes to summaries. But brevity without substance is worthless. Never say more than the occasion demands—but never say less, either. Adopt the reader’s perspective: fill in as much information as it takes to get people up to speed.

Recap:

  • Summarize the vital information at the beginning of the document.
  • Summarize each section with a sentence that addresses “the five Ws” (who, what, when, where, why) and how—and use these sentences to build your general summary.
  • Provide only the information the reader needs to understand the issue—no more and no less.

Use chronology when giving a factual account

Create a chronology of relevant events to organize the narrative. Don’t jump in the middle. Once you’ve laid out a chronology of events, drafting the email becomes much easier—just a matter of stringing the events together and asking to meet with Sarah before next Tuesday’s meeting. But avoid rote repetition of unimportant details like dates.

Be a stickler for continuity

Smooth writing consists of a sequence of well-joined sentences and paragraphs, not a mere collection of them. This smooth sequencing requires good planning and skill in handling transitions, or links that help readers follow your train of thought. Good subheads steer the reader from one idea to the next. Types of connections:

  • establish a time sequence: then, at that point, as soon as...
  • establish place: there, up front, way back...
  • add a point: and, or, further...
  • underscore a point: after all, indeed, more important...
  • concede a point: although, admittedly...
  • return to a point: even so, nevertheless, still...
  • give an example: for example...
  • provide a reason: because, thus, since, therefore...
  • set up contrast: but, yet, conversely...
  • set up a conclusion: so, finally, to sum up...

No matter how smooth your transitions are between sentences and paragraphs, time-pressed readers will zone out if you place a solid wall of text in front of them. Break up your document with some signposts to lead people from section to section and let them quickly locate parts. Make your subheads as consistent as you can.

Recap:

  • Use well-placed transitional phrases to guide the reader to your next idea and indicate its relationship to what came before.
  • Break up documents with concise, descriptive subheads to increase readability and help readers quickly locate the information most important to them.
  • Use a “summary” subhead to point your readers to the document’s highlights.
  • Use consistent style and parallel syntax in your subheads to reinforce the document’s logical and rhetorical cohesion.

Learn the basics of correct grammar

Your readers may see your language—especially your use of your native language—as a reflection of your competence. Make lots of mistakes and you’ll come across as uneducated and uninformed. People will hesitate to trust your recommendation to launch a resource-intensive project, for example, or to buy goods or services. They may think you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Don’t anesthetize your readers

The best conversationists and lecturers, no matter how obscure their topic, make it fascinating. They avoid trite expressions. They use strong, simple words.

Recap:

  • Don’t overuse “I”. Use “we”, “our”, “you”, and “your” instead to add a personal touch and appeal to your reader.
  • Avoid stuffiness by overcoming any fear you might have of contractions.
  • For clearer, more straightforward writing, prefer active voice—unless the passive in a particular context sounds more natural.
  • Vary the length and structure of your sentences.
  • Make the reader’s job easier by avoiding acronyms when you can.

Watch your tone

Striking the right tone takes work—but it’s critical to the success of your business documents. If you sound likable and professional, people will want to work with you and respond to you. So adopt a relaxed tone, as if speaking directly to the recipient of your document. Avoid hyperformality: what do you think of colleagues who say or write “how may I be of assistance?” instead of “how may I help you?” When they choose overblown words over everyday equivalents, don’t they strike you as pompous?

Too much formality will spoil your style. Keep your writing down to earth and achieve a personal touch by:

  • Writing your message more or less as you’d say it, but without all the casualisms (“like” and “you know”).
  • Including courtesies such and “thank you”, “we’re happy to”, and “we appreciate”.
  • Using the names of the people you’re writing about.
  • Using personal pronouns (“you”, “he”, “she”—not “the reader”, “the applicant”).

Be collegial: you’ll have better luck delivering most kinds of messages, even tough ones, if you approach people collegially. Imagine that everything you write will be paraded before a jury in a lawsuit.

Drop the sarcasm: sarcasm expresses contempt and superiority. It doesn’t shame people into compliance. Rather, it’s a surefire way of irritating and alienating them.

Recap:

  • Arrive at a relaxed but professional tone by writing your message as if you were speaking to the recipient in person.
  • Refer to people by name, use personal pronouns as you naturally would, and shun fancy substitutes for everyday words.
  • Always use your best judgement and a collegial tone in composing your messages, even if the content isn’t positive. You’ll get better responses and keep yourself out of trouble.
  • Adopt a tone appropriate to your relationship with the recipient.
  • Never use sarcasm is professional messages. It will result in a step away from—not toward—your desired outcome.

Writing emails

Be as direct as possible while maintaining a polite tone. Come to the point of your email within the first two or three sentences.

Keep emails brief. Restrict yourself to one screen’s worth of text and keep the message tight and focused so your readers get the point fast. Write a concise subject line that tells your readers why you’re writing and what it means to them. If they need to act on your message, make that clear in the subject line.

Diligently adhere to standard writing conventions—even when typing with your thumbs on a handheld device. Never click “Reply All”. Pick your recipients!

A checklist for the four stages of writing (MACJ)

Madman (prepare):

  • Consider why you’re writing: What’s moved you to write? What’s the assignment? What you do hope to achieve?
  • Think about who your readers are and what they need to know.
  • Figure out how much time you have, and work out a rough schedule for gathering ideas and material, outlining, preparing a draft, and revising.
  • Research with imagination and gusto. Take notes on relevant information.
  • Push yourself to be creative. Don’t be content with obvious ideas that just anyone would think of.

Architect (skeleton):

  • Write down your three main points in complete sentences—with as much specificity as you can.
  • Consider the best order of the three main points and reorganize them if necessary.
  • Decide how to open and conclude the document.
  • Think about what visual aids might be helpful in conveying your ideas.

Carpenter (draft):

  • If possible, turn away from all distractions. Silence your phone and your computer alerts, and find an hour of solitude. You’ll be writing.
  • Use your three-point outline as a guide.
  • Start writing paragraphs that support the point your find easiest to start with—then move to the other points.
  • Write swiftly without stopping to edit or polish.
  • Try to write a full section in one sitting. If you must get up in the middle of a section, start the next sentence with a few words and then leave.

Judge (improve and iterate):

  • Immediately after completing your draft, read it through with the idea of amplifying ideas here and there.
  • Then let it cool off—overnight, if you can, or for a few minutes if you’re working under an urgent deadline.
  • When you return to your draft, consider it from the audience’s perspective. Will it be clear to everyone who looks at it, or does it require inside knowledge? Is it concise, or does it waste words and time?
  • Identify the draft’s two biggest flaws and try to fix them.
  • Ask yourself:
    • Is anything essential missing?
    • Are important points stressed?
    • Is the meaning of each sentence clear and accurate?
    • Are my transitions smooth?
    • What can I trim without sacrificing important content?
    • Are there any vague passages I can sharpen with specific facts?
    • Are there boring passages I can word more vividly?
    • Can I improve the phrasing?
    • Can I improve the punctuation?
    • Are there any typos?